You know the saying — “It’s not about the size of the boat’s engine, it’s about the motion of the ocean.” Pretty sure that’s it. The point is, despite the strong correlation between fastball velocity and strikeout rate, there are plenty of pitchers that make less gas work by varying speeds, varying location, and varying movement.
Jack Moore did an excellent job of talking about Tom Layne‘s history and his ability to get whiffs from batters on both sides of the plate earlier today. He’s certainly not doing it with gas — his fastball barely averages 90 mph — and though he does have a curveball and a slider/cutter, he’s probably not doing it with different speeds. He mostly works in the high 70s to the high 80s. And the motion of his ocean? Neither the x-movement or the y-movement on his primary breaking pitch, the curveball, could be considered elite.
Suddenly we’re talking about the struggling 28-year-old starter in Triple-A, not the sizzling reliever that just struck out the meat of the revamped Dodgers lineup two days ago. Except that Layne has a trick up his sleeve that is used less often these days: multiple arm slots.
Check out these two consecutive pitches that struck out Adrian Gonzalez. They’re both curveballs, but they couldn’t be more different while being the same pitch thrown by the same man. First, the sidearm version:
And then, with Gonzalez trying to gauge the left-to-right movement and watching that sidearm angle, Layne dropped this over-the-top hammer on him:
That’s what the scouts call ‘creating angles.’ Yes, Layne learned a cutter recently, and yes his stuff is probably playing up in short stretches, but it’s these varying release points that will help set him apart.
It’s possible that multiple release points from the same pitcher used to be more ubiquitous back in the day, there are certainly those that will point that out. Ask a scout about it, as I did, and he’ll tell you that it’s “hard enough to be consistent with one arm slot.” Add that with the generally accepted wisdom that repeatable mechanics can help a pitcher avoid injury, and it makes sense that most pitchers are moved away from having multiple release points.
Perhaps when it comes to to fringy starters or lefty relievers, there’s less pressure to keep the pitcher healthy, and they can just do what they want to do. Like, say, San Francisco LOOGY / platoon closer Javier Lopez:
I cheated though. That’s 2010, it’s not two distinct release points, and he’s since cleaned up his arm slot a little. There are a few right-handed comps that have distinct release points — Mike Mussina, Bronson Arroyo, and Jose Contreras might be the most famous — but how about a lefty? While Jeremy Greenhouse presented lefty Alberto Castillo and his three release points once, it’s the sweet music of Bruce Chen that provides us the best comparison for Layne in particular:
One thing that leaps out here is that, like Layne, Chen doesn’t vary arm slots on all his pitches. He prefers to mix up his fastball and curveball arm slots and leave his changeup alone. Mussina did the same. It looks like Bronson Arroyo only has one release point for his changeup, too. Makes sense, given the grip and release of your typical changeup, but it’s an interesting phenomenon.
Release points are a wrinkle in any attempt to create a process-based model for pitching success. You might be able to account for velocity difference and variety movement when describing your ideal pitcher, but what will his release points look like? While different slots might be bad for your health and ability to repeat your delivery, once you master the ability, it seems clear that it can be an asset. At the very least, it’s helping Tom Layne be a weapon against batters from both sides of the plate right now.